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Flood in the Ahr valley: investigation files document the failure of the authorities

Flood in the Ahr valley: investigation files document the failure of the authorities

As a result of the flood disaster in the Ahr Valley, serious mistakes were apparently made. For example, the district’s Kristenstab was not sufficiently informed about the extent of the flood. This emerges from the investigation files of the Koblenz public prosecutor’s office, about which the “Spiegel” reports. A representative of the Federal Agency for Technical Relief said: “We didn’t know anything about a tidal wave.” Too small, too few people, too little information, that’s how the witnesses described the crisis team. A firefighter is said to have stated that he had only “determined the extent” when he came home in the morning. Otherwise there would still have been the possibility of evacuating “early” and “largely”. “We didn’t know that bridges and houses were being torn down. We didn’t have this information.” According to the report, Jürgen Pföhler, the district administrator of the Ahrweiler district, was only “twice briefly” present in the crisis team. A witness testified that he had seen Pföhler walking his dog in the evening. The public prosecutor’s office is investigating Pföhler and the civil protection officer Michael Z., who de facto headed the crisis team, on suspicion of negligent homicide by omission. Also read Pföhler’s lawyer, Olaf Langhanki, who stated that his client was “in no way liable to prosecution”. His uninterrupted presence in the crisis team was not necessary. In addition, according to the fire and disaster protection law, the state should have taken over the command of the operation, since the dangers affected several districts and would have required central defense measures. On Friday, the investigative committee of the Rhineland-Palatinate state parliament questioned various experts on the disaster in which 134 people died. Meteorologist Jörg Kachelmann said that the fatalities in the flood disaster in the Ahr valley would undoubtedly have been avoidable. “There is always enough time to do the right thing. Nobody has to die.”

There was enough time for evictions, says Kachelmann

All weather models had already shown the high risk of extremely heavy rain for the Eifel several days in advance. The authorities could therefore have planned evacuations and warned the population two days before the tsunami. When the rain front actually moved towards the Eifel on July 14 last year and the level rose, there would still have been enough time to clear the affected towns, Kachelmann said. Model calculations would no longer have been necessary at this point. Many hours of continuous rain are needed before the water masses trigger flooding in the form of a tidal wave. Also read Bernhard Mühr from the EWB Wetterberatung in Karlsruhe said that by 4 p.m. on the afternoon of July 14 at the latest, it was clear that the Ahr Valley was facing an even higher flood wave than the hundred-year flood of 2016. Until the morning of July 14 it was not clear exactly where in the region the focal points of the heavy rain would be. According to the forecasts of the previous days, even significantly higher precipitation could have fallen in the Eifel than was actually the case.

Did the warnings from the weather services go down?

Mühr criticized the communication of the agencies involved immediately before the disaster. Although all the data was correctly predicted by the German Weather Service, the explosive nature of the warnings may not have been recognized. “We have a flood of warnings in which the actual extreme warnings can unfortunately get lost,” he said. Meteorologist and TV presenter Sven Plöger is convinced that regions affected by extremely heavy rain cannot be evacuated well in advance. It is too difficult to predict several days in advance where exactly such storms will lead to devastating tidal waves like in the Ahr Valley. Even changing small details in the model calculations could lead to fundamentally different results. The meteorologist Kachelmann later countered that reference to such uncertainties was a “phantom discussion”. In the USA, too, places along the calculated track would be evacuated in the event of a hurricane, along with a safety corridor. Usually nobody complains afterwards if their house is left standing. Also read Flood expert Jörg Dietrich from Leibniz University Hanover said he did not understand why the State Office for the Environment only raised its flood warning for the Ahr to the second highest warning level on the morning of July 14. However, the exact water levels on the river could not have been reliably estimated, since bridges blocked with rubbish and uprooted trees would have temporarily acted as additional dams and, if they collapsed, would have caused further waves, he said. The evacuation of the valley was not ordered until after 11 p.m. for the area immediately surrounding the river. The committee invited a total of ten experts to the all-day marathon meeting and questioned them in detail. The deputies should clarify whether there were wrong decisions and breaches of duty in the run-up to and immediately after the catastrophic flood in the Ahr Valley. In terms of procedure, the questioning in the committee meetings is similar to the taking of evidence in a criminal trial.

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